The Kaliningrad Contingency
The once-great home of Immanuel Kant has become a post-Soviet dystopia, fortified by Putin — a time bomb waiting to explode
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make maddening. At the end of the European Union’s Malta summit in February, the President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, dismissed the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s appeal to engage “constructively and patiently” with the Trump administration: “I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge,” the Iron Lady of Lithuania (as Ms Grybauskaite likes to be known) declared, apparently in jest: “We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”
Consider who is speaking here about whom. Lithuania is a Baltic state with an area smaller than Scotland and a population smaller than Wales. Apart from a brief period between the wars, it had been ruled by its larger neighbours for centuries until it gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago. President Grybauskaite also calls herself an independent; yet she is anything but. Her career moved seamlessly from serving the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to serving the Commission of the European Union. That progression from commissar to commissioner has apparently equipped her with a mindset that makes anti-Americanism instinctive. And, like the rest of the European heads of government gathered in Malta, Lithuania’s Iron Lady evidently has a particular antipathy towards Donald Trump.
Ah, yes: Mr Trump. He is now the only subject on which the European Union can agree. Even Brexit has not united the 27 member states (some of whose citizens have a sneaking admiration and envy for the British) as completely as the election of an American president whom many Eurocrats see as worse than Vladimir Putin. (When asked which of the two was a greater threat to the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission President refused to say.) The Cold War fantasy of the EU being the third superpower between the US and the USSR is by no means dead. On the eve of the Malta summit, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, declared that with “the new [Trump] administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy . . . the disintegration of the European Union will not lead to some mythical, full sovereignty of its member states, but to their real and factual dependence on the great superpowers: the United States, Russia and China.” In other words: the EU can and must become a superpower too, as long as its members toe the Brussels line. This thinking lies behind the recent revival of plans for the EU to create its own armed forces.
Back in the late 16th and early 17th century, Lithuania had a claim to be a superpower too: the united commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania ruled over a vast multi-ethnic empire in eastern Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In Mussorgsky’s operatic masterpiece Boris Godunov, set in this period, the threat to Russia from Lithuania is a constant leitmotif. But in modern times, Lithuania — like the other Baltic states and indeed all of central and eastern Europe — has only been able to escape the gravitational pull of Russia to the east and Germany to the west by virtue of an international order based on the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, which has been ultimately guaranteed by the United States.
This fundamental fact, that Europeans have depended on the Americans for their security and independence, has been obscured by the miasma of panic, posturing and passive aggression that has gripped the continent since Trump’s election and especially since his inauguration.
I have focused on Lithuania, however, not merely because it may be seen as representative, both in its historical predicament and in the delusions of its leadership, but because it happens to be adjacent to an obscure corner of Europe of which only a few of its German, Polish and Baltic neighbours are acutely conscious: Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian exclave in the heart of Nato. This neglected and desolate place, cut off from the rest of Europe and connected to Russia only by sea and air, was a closed military base throughout the Cold War. A forbidden and forgotten city, Kaliningrad failed to revive in the boom of the 1990s in newly liberated Poland and the Baltic states; a million Russians still languish there in grinding poverty, with low life expectancy and lower expectations. Only now is it undergoing a restoration: not of its former architectural and intellectual glories, let alone its mercantile fortunes, but of the sinister function it had in Soviet times: as a fortified base from which to threaten the West. Putin has turned Kaliningrad into the most militarised region of Europe, bristling with Iskander and Bastion missile systems, stealth aircraft, warships and surveillance equipment. It is just 328 miles from Berlin.
Until Stalin annexed and renamed the city after 1945, Kaliningrad was Königsberg, the old capital of East Prussia. In 1256 a Castrum de Coningsberg appears in the documents: the castle on the River Pregel, accessible to but sheltered from the Baltic, dominated the city below for the next seven centuries. It had once been the seat of the High Master of the Teutonic Knights, later of the Electors of Brandenburg and the Kings of Prussia. In the 18th century Königsberg was eclipsed by Berlin as a political and economic hub, but continued to be important in the intellectual rebirth of Germany and even of Europe. In particular, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who spent his long life there, was a magnet for talent who gave Königsberg a comparable role in the Enlightenment to Edinburgh. This Athens of the Baltic was home to such Romantic luminaries as J.G. Herder and J.G. Hamann, the magus of irrationalism and the prophet of culture; Heinrich von Kleist, whose meteoric career illuminated the bleak landscapes of East Prussia with his fiery genius; and E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose uncanny tales still make our flesh creep. In the 20th century the political philosopher Hannah Arendt and the late Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits were two of the few members of Königsberg’s thriving Jewish community to escape before the war.
Like other cities and fortresses of a region where stone was too hard to quarry, Königsberg was built of brick: a gothic forest of pinnacles, turrets and towers. In the 19th century it acquired industries as well as trade; its politics moved to the Left, from the liberal hero of the 1848 revolution and pioneer of Jewish emancipation, Johann Jacoby, to Otto Braun, socialist Prussian prime minister in the Weimar Republic and a staunch opponent of Hitler. Yet beyond the city walls lay a feudal world of large estates, worked by a variety of Germanic and Slavic peasants and ruled by a rustic aristocracy for whom this land was, depending on the individual, an idyll or a backwater.
Unlike Germany’s other eastern provinces, farmed by the notoriously reactionary Junker class, the nobility of East Prussia tended to be more cosmopolitan. One member of this caste was Countess Marion Dönhoff. As editor and publisher of Die Zeit, she became the grande dame of postwar German liberalism, but she was determined that East Prussia, where she grew up in the exquisite Schloss Friedrichstein, would not be forgotten. Her 1962 memoir of the expulsion of the surviving Germans from East Prussia, Names that Nobody Names Any More, included photographs of its lost castles and houses, including one of Königsberg as a sea of flames after a raid by RAF Lancasters. Her elegiac farewell to her beloved landscape was addressed to her embittered countrymen, who took another three decades to renounce territorial claims. The fall of Königsberg in April 1945, though on a smaller scale than that of Berlin a few weeks later, was no less apocalyptic. Hans von Lehndorff, another East Prussian count, lived through it all, surviving mainly because the Russians valued him as a doctor.
His East Prussian Diary records the transition from Nazi to Communist rule during the period from 1945-47. Published in 1967, it became an instant classic. Lehndorff recounts with a deep sense of remorse and a dry sense of humour the horrors visited on their former oppressors by Russian soldiers bent on revenge and rape. Weeks after the emaciated civilians are herded into camps, he and his staff are driven back into Königsberg to hunt in the ruins for medical supplies. One of his colleagues objects to Lehndorff’s scruffy attire: “You can’t go to the city in that hat!” He cannot believe that anybody still cares. “The city! A grandiose heap of rubble. And oneself: a tiny dung beetle that has just been crushed by a roller and still can’t comprehend how he is still alive . . . Hard to believe that there are people who take such an obvious judgment of God for a hideous accident.” Within two years, what was left of the German population was expelled and replaced by Russian settlers.
Seven decades after the terrible fate visited on Königsberg, it is a sobering thought that this benighted place might be the source of the next great conflagration. Not only the Germans but the whole of Europe risks another such divine retribution: not for the unspeakable crimes of the Nazis, but for a complacency that is almost criminal. Today Kaliningrad resembles Mordor in The Lord of the Rings: a shadowland dominated by the all-seeing towers of the Russian intelligence agencies. It houses an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons capable of devastating north-eastern Europe, the most likely theatre of war after Ukraine. No credible defence of the Baltic states is possible as long as this Russian bridgehead remains to the rear of Nato forces, far behind the eastern borders of the Western alliance. Kaliningrad is a time bomb waiting to explode.
Europeans persist in ignoring the threat posed by an expansionist Russia that clearly regards all the former territories of the Soviet Union as part of its legitimate sphere of influence. But Europe is also turning its back on America, now as ever the last best hope of Western civilisation. As I write, US and other Nato forces are still being deployed in the Baltic states to contain the threat posed by Kaliningrad. What, though, if President Trump were to respond to the manifest hostility of his European allies by pulling out? Why should America risk nuclear war for the sake of Lithuania — or indeed other Nato members? If, as opinion polls suggest, the British public agrees with the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, that this president is unworthy to address parliament, why should we feel entitled to rely on US forces, whose commander-in-chief he is? If we are to treat Mr Trump as a leper, is he necessarily wrong to criticise Europe for leaving itself defenceless while letting its cities be attacked by terrorists and overrun by migrants? Kaliningrad stands as a symbol of anamnesis: the loss of collective memory, of history, language, and culture at the hands of conquerors.
The truth is that peace in Europe subsists at the mercy of the Kaliningrad contingency: the remote but real possibility that a major war could break out in or in the vicinity of the exclave. Ukraine’s territorial integrity was guaranteed by the signatories of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States and Britain as well as Russia, in return for Ukraine’s renunciation of nuclear weapons. Twenty years later Russia was not deterred from annexing Crimea and breaking up Ukraine. If the President of Lithuania thinks she doesn’t need Britain to be a transatlantic bridge because “we communicate with the United States by Twitter”, then heaven help the Baltic states if and when the Kaliningrad contingency comes to pass.